Many well-known and much-loved celebrities have passed away in 2016. The latest is the American actor Jerome Silberman, better known as Gene Wilder. He was a big star of screen and stage throughout an illustrious career but to most people in the UK, he is most famous for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and two much-loved of the four comedies in which he starred with Richard Pryor.
The son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, Wilder was not born into acting. At aged 8, when his mother fell ill, the family Doctor said that Gene should “make his mother laugh” and he attempted his comedy skills. He must have caught the acting bug because after watching his elder sister on stage, he asked her teacher if he would take Gene on as a student. The reply was that “if you are still interested when you’re 13, I will”. Wilder called the teacher the day after his 13th birthday and began acting training.
After studying at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Wilder would spend most of his early career on stage. He would not make his first TV appearance until 1961 aged 28. Two years previously, he adopted the stage name Gene Wilder.
A World of Pure Imagination
He would experience ten years of parts in such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers (his first lead part) which would propel him to world fame. But it would be the iconic film adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic that would cement his position as a screen icon. He was offered the role against stiff competition that included Peter Sellers, John Pertwee, Spike Milligan and Fred Astaire amongst others.
The film was not successful at first and received mixed reviews. For Wilder, taking on the role was a gamble as his previous three films did not perform well. Nevertheless, it stood the test of time to become a childhood classic. The 1970s was a golden age for Wilder; by the end of the decade, he became a household name.
Richard Pryor Collaborations
In the 1980s, he teamed up with stand-up comedian and actor Richard Pryor for a second time after the success of their first outing Silver Streak in 1976. They starred in four comedies together including Stir Crazy, a film that was so successful that it would arguably spur the last two: See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. The former divided critics and fans and the latter demonstrated just how ill Pryor had become. This final collaboration would also be final feature film appearances for both men (1991).
The 1980s would see Wilder direct or writer several films including The Woman in Red, Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother and Young Frankenstein. As he moved away from acting, he began to write more and felt more comfortable behind the scenes than in front of the camera.
Wilder married four times. His first marriage was to Mary Mercier; they married in 1960 and divorced in 1965 due to spending so much time apart. A few months after that divorce, he began dating Mary Joan Schutz. He adopted her daughter during this process, but that marriage also failed. They separated and divorced after a few years with Schutz suspicious that Wilder was having an affair.
His third marriage was to Gilder Radner and at last, it seemed that Wilder had found love even though Radner was married to somebody else at the time. Yet tragedy would strike; after five years of marriage, Radner died of ovarian cancer. Wilder would spend many years campaigning and raising funds for cancer charities following this. His fourth and final marriage came several years later when he reconnected with Karen Webb who’d helped him learn to lip read for the See No Evil, Hear No Evil part.
Wilder spent the best part of the last 10-15 years of his life in and out of the limelight, generally refusing most offers to act again. He said he would if the right opportunity came along, but felt that none of the 50+ offers he received every year was suitable. In 2013, he received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease but kept the information private. His death on the 29th August was recorded as complications caused by the condition.